It has been decades since bombs fell and bullets flew on the Korean peninsula. Yet the United States, China, North Korea, and South Korea still technically are at war. The Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
The time is long overdue for the “combatants” to declare a state of peace.
Until now formally ending the war might have seemed premature. North Korea launched routine rhetorical fulminations and occasional violent attacks over the years. The North’s conventional forces were essentially spring-loaded just north of the Demilitarized Zone, ready to resume combat. Furthermore, despite Pyongyang’s sometimes pacific protestations, it didn’t seem like the North Korean leadership actually wanted peace.
Everything changed this year. Although the Trump-Kim summit was the highlight, there was much more. Kim’s three meetings with China’s Xi Jinping suggest that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has moved closer to Beijing’s position, which for years emphasized stability and peace.
Kim met twice with the Republic of Korea’s Moon Jae-in and the second visit was arranged overnight. South Korean diplomats report that the DPRK’s Supreme Leader treated Moon, his elder, with traditional Asian deference. Kim rules with a lethal hand but is deftly playing the game of international statesman.
Indeed, Kim apparently has been invited to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin, and there is even talk of a summit with Japan's Shinzo Abe. The North Korean leader appeared to enjoy his stroll in Singapore. He appears unlikely to revert to his father's and grandfather's hermit-like behavior.
Equally significant, the North recently ended its anti-American propaganda. Cleaning up Pyongyang, so to speak, will be no easy task. Posters line streets and fill walls. The United States was a frequent target. This change could be a ruse, of course. But likely not. For seventy years Washington and its “puppets” in the ROK were the primary enemies used to rally North Koreans behind the regime. Now Kim Jong-un has implicitly declared that peace reigns on the peninsula.
Recognizing changing reality is a good reason to make peace formally, but there is a better one: encouraging movement toward denuclearization.
Grant that no one has ever gone broke betting against DPRK intransigence. Moreover, America has given Kim much cause to hold on to his nukes. The last international pariah to disarm in return for Western expressions of love and affection, Muammar Gaddafi, probably wondered in his dying moments why he had trusted the Americans.
Nevertheless, Kim appears to be different than his predecessors. He is more committed to economic reform and comfortable with the international spotlight than his father and grandfather. He has established a friendly relationship with several foreign leaders. He has taken the North from the most threatening ever—staging multiple nuclear and missiles tests accompanied by threats against America—to the most pacific ever, eliminating even domestic anti-American propaganda. In a first, he at least wants the DPRK to appear non-threatening. Perhaps he is trying to deceive his enemies. But he might really want to live peacefully with them, whether or not he keeps his nuclear arsenal.
If denuclearization is possible, it still won't be easy. Pyongyang won't give away anything for free, and Kim understandably wants assurances—presumably better than those received by Gaddafi. Before the summit, Kim said nukes wouldn't be necessary if the United States and DPRK had a relationship and lots of contact. Moreover, the short statement agreed to at the summit put denuclearization last, after establishing "new U.S.-DPRK relations" and building "a lasting and stable peace regime." Kim almost certainly expects to proceed in that order.
This will take more than one leader summit or a handful of secretary of state visits. The administration should seek to accelerate the process, first ending the dual travel ban, on Americans going to North Korea and North Koreans coming to America. A greater flow of people would be the sort of contact that Kim presumably desires. Dropping the prohibition also would indicate the end of what the North Koreans routinely term America’s “hostile policy.”
The administration also could send additional visitors. A Treasury Department official could discuss how Washington might roll back sanctions—if Pyongyang proceeds with denuclearization. The U.S. Trade Representative could send someone to chat about commercial possibilities, again, if the DPRK moves forward. The objective would be to demonstrate to Kim that the administration is prepared to establish significant, positive, and ongoing ties.
Washington also could suggest that private figures in the entertainment and sports industries visit Pyongyang. What kind of cultural cooperation would be possible if bilateral ties expand? Again, the goal would be to highlight both the potential benefits of disarmament and the Trump administration’s desire to build a cooperative future. Kim might believe the United States is less likely to bomb a nation that is busy hosting American celebrities.
In addition, the administration should propose the elimination of today’s formal state of war. Pyongyang long pushed to create “a peace regime,” despite the Kim dynasty’s at times brutally confrontational policies. Some Washington policymakers fear that a formal peace treaty would be viewed as a concession, but the United States and South Korea no less than the DPRK have an interest in peace. Even something less formal than a formal treaty would be helpful: The North suggested a declaration ending the war.